At this writing we Americans find ourselves at the ass end of 2016 after a slog of an election year in which we elected a bankrupted reality TV star as the president elect. If that wasn’t enough, we now have an ultra conservative House and Senate about to move the country’s social progress back to about 1816. The advances American society has made in healthcare, women’s rights, and civil liberties have never been in greater peril. The people of the United States have spoken and they do not want progressive, liberal ideas at this time.
For the rest of us, Studs Terkel — the great oral historian, champion of the common man, political activist, radio host, and listener — couldn’t be more relevant now. Author Alan Wieder recently released a timely and engaging biography, Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation. Mr. Wieder and I engaged in some conversation about Terkel’s life and work below.
Alan, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I know you as the author of the book Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation. Tell me a little bit about your background. I understand you are a professor and have written other books as well.
Thanks for doing this Mike. So yes, I was a professor, but I took early retirement in 2008. Between 1999 and 2013 my oral history work was in South Africa and it culminated with a book on South African freedom fighters Ruth First & Joe Slovo — Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. But I think that I probably began writing the book on Studs in my head in the early ’90s. I went to graduate school in the ’70s when oral history work was not respected and I was fortunate to have a doctoral committee who loved Studs’ first couple of books. Thus, I feel/felt a great debt.
To start off with a brief summary of Studs Terkel’s career and importance does him a disservice to some degree. How do you commonly introduce Studs Terkel to people who aren’t familiar?
Yes, very hard to do. I toured in September and October for the book and I introduced Studs in general terms as a radio guy, author / oral historian, and third-party political guy. I also spoke about how he talked to everyone because he believed there was always wisdom in the room. “Room” was defined broadly and could mean the corner deli, the bus, everywhere and anywhere. Studs loved to be amazed and the people he interviewed were often themselves amazed by what they had told him.
I understand your life and Terkel’s life intertwined at some point. How did you come to write about Terkel? How long did the book take to complete?
As I said above, in my head probably since the early ’90s. I wrote an article on Studs, South Africa, and oral history in the early ’00s. I started the book in earnest in 2013 and that involved over 100 interviews, re-reading Studs’ books, articles and things written about him. In addition, I listened to many of his WFMT radio interviews that included ‘common’ people, those that Studs referred to as “ordinary but extraordinary”, as well as people whose names we know. I should add that Studs chose to seldom, almost never, interview politicians.
To give us a sense of scale, approximately how many items are in the Studs Terkel oeuvre? Is it known how many interviews Studs conducted?
Radio interviews and book interviews are separate. For his 45-year radio show at WFMT radio there are around 5,600 interviews. Wonderfully, WFMT is in the process of having all of those digitized, and around 500 are presently available. (http://studsterkel.wfmt.com). As for his books, I haven’t counted but you can probably count the interviews that appear and probably triple it and you’d have that number.
WFMT’s Studs Terkel Radio Show archive is amazing. Were all these shows available when you were working on the book?
Like I said, around 500 are available. Just like Studs’ books, people have different favorites. Mine is Muhammad Ali.
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Studs Terkel began as an actor. I understand through what later became the Hollywood Blacklist is that being in the theater in the ’30s tended to politicize young people to the far left. Do you think his early days in the theater influenced the great political activist?
Studs had a number of influences and his theater work was with a progressive troupe, Chicago Repertory Theatre. Besides theater venues, they played in union halls, bars, and in the streets. But Studs listened to Gene Debs’ speeches with his father, listened to the lobby debates at his parents’ men’s hotel, and spent a good deal of time in Bughouse Square; Chicago’s version of London’s Hyde Park. He was especially attracted to the Wobblies. Also, he became politicized regarding white supremacy when he was a student at the University of Chicago. I just wish we could hear him speak today about (Steve) Bannon and more.
Terkel’s wife Ida of 60 years was an important influence on his art and activism. I get the impression they influenced each other and they helped each other stay optimistic during troubling times. Tell me a little bit about Ida Terkel.
I wish I knew more about Ida. Everyone whom I spoke with adored Ida: her grace, but also her political toughness. Studs always told people that she was much more political than himself. She influenced his riding the train and interviewing people at the March on Washington as well as the Selma to Montgomery March. She, not Studs, was arrested in Washington protesting the Vietnam War. Ida sat with peace comrades guarding the Black Panther headquarters in Chicago after the police assassination of young Panther leader Fred Hampton.
That was in 1969. Just a few years ago, Bernardine Dohrn told me that when she knew Ida in the ’90s she always thought that she wanted to be like Ida when she got older. Finally, not about politics, she was Studs’ most important critic. As soon as his WFMT shows concluded he called Ida for approval.
I was really into the parts where Terkel came in contact with overt racism and always sided with those who have been mistreated. It seems obvious which side was the right side of history to be on. Defending Big Bill Broozy in that bar comes to mind. This took lots of guts throughout the mid-20th century. What part did Studs play in the civil rights movement?
Studs said the best part of his law school education was hanging out in black record shops in Bronzeville, an African American neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago. He was greatly affected by people like Bill Broonzy, Mahalia Jackson, Timuel Black, and mostly Paul Robeson who he got to know as they helped support Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party bid for President in 1948. He honored Robeson’s bravery and had him on his show in 1954 — a brave act in itself as Robeson was persona non grata in the “yet to be United States of America.” Studs… documented white supremacy in the United States. He did so in the two examples I mention above as well as locally in Chicago. I should add that in 1963 he also documented apartheid in South Africa.
Studs Terkel began publishing books much later in his life than most writers. Tell me a little bit about his first book, Division Street.
The story of Studs beginning to write books when he was 55-years-old is pretty well known. Suffice it to say that Andre Schiffrin asked him if he would write a book about Chicago as a village. He thought that Schiffrin was crazy but of course Division Street became a reality.
Division Street remains my favorite book, maybe tied with Hope Dies Last. All of the people in the book are from Chicago and although there is an actual Division Street in the city, the title stands for the great divide of social class and race in the city. This was a divide that Studs refused to honor as he had friends on all sides.
We Told Him All
One of the beauties of Studs’ books was that he didn’t demonize people. So he interviewed civil rights workers as well as KKK members and everything in-between. In fact, he often referred to an interview with a white neo-Nazi cab driver that haunted him. What’s important I think is that Studs’ was respected and he respected across this divide. He fought for workers and despised racism, yet he wanted people to honestly talk with him. Sounds like something sorely missing today. One final thing that speaks to Studs and the divide: He is the only white person in the African American Literary Hall of Fame that is based in Chicago.
Terkel’s book Working is probably the best known. The premise is simple. Terkel interviewed people in different occupations about what they do. This is how I first came to Terkel. His oral biography Hard Times also deals with the plight of the people. How were these books accepted in their time? How is time treating them?
Working is clearly Studs’ most famous book and in fact the play I think is the second most produced in schools throughout the United States. Hard Times is actually more interesting. At the time that it came out it was lauded as a testament to the “American spirit”, “American exceptionalism”. That was not at all Studs’ intention and the only one who wrote about Studs showing political and economic breakdown in the book was his friend Nelson Algren, who wrote a review in The Nation. Studs spoke of showing the hurts of people and that is done in most of his books. However, he also showed the systemic class disparity and racism throughout his books.
I’ve read that former ’60s radical Bill Ayers of The Weathermen was a friend of Terkel’s and was a great resource for you. Can you tell me about Ayers’s influence on the book?
So Bill and Bernardine’s influence on the book is that they opened worlds of Chicago to me. They’ve lived in Chicago for a million years and they know the worlds that Studs lived in. They introduced me to people who knew Studs well and that opened doors. Kevin Coval, who wrote the Foreword to the book and Haki Madhubuti, whose poem is in the Afterword, were introduced to me by Bill and Bernardine, as were numerous other people.
What comes across through Terkel’s interviews, political actions, radio shows, writings is a sincere guy who really loves humanity. He was a great listener. I’d like to discuss listening for a moment. I think that very act of listening closely is sorely needed now.
It’s funny because Studs never stopped talking. You can ask people who rode the bus with him. But yes, when he did interviews and when he met people he was the world’s best listener. During the past year I wish I could hear Studs’ voice everyday.
I think actually, though, if we read his books we can see much of what people are thinking today. He presented the term “rust belt”. He presented white racists and black people who suffered from racism. He presented people fighting for a better world. He was ultimately critically hopeful. But most importantly, he was able to tell the stories that he told because he respected people and he listened to them. One of his mantras was “I want people to tell me what they want to tell me and not tell me what they didn’t want to tell me.” We told him all.
Terkel’s bus ride to and from the radio station was a great part of his work. It’s when he would just talk to people. As a New Yorker I find this relatable, even if I keep to myself. How do you think these rides influenced his work and perspective?
It was all one. The bus was how he lived. I’ll tell you a funny story. I was on the bus going to the Chicago History Museum to go read Studs’ stuff in the archives. There was a guy across from me that had a jacket on with a union label — he was a filmmaker. I did a Studs and started a conversation. Turns out the guy grew up with Studs’ son; had often filmed Studs, and his family were friends with Studs and Ida. Of course, I interviewed him and his aunts for the book.
That’s a great story. It makes me want to believe that Studs was present. In addition to documenting and interviewing the common working people he came across throughout the world, Terkel also interviewed some of the most important artists of his time. Who are some of the most notable interviewees Terkel documented? It’s a real “Who’s Who”.
Everyone of course talks about Bob Dylan but there were so many; Fellini, opera people, Paul Robeson. Studs wrote two books, The Spectator and And They All Sang, that feature people he interviewed on his show including Francois Truffaut, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Agnes DeMille, Carol Channing, Arthur Miller, Brando and a million more.
From the tone of the book one can tell you have a great reverence for Terkel. What were some of Terkel’s failures? His shortcomings?
He himself said that he had some regrets regarding family. He could be impatient with colleagues.
Funny, there were two sides of Studs and I experienced both the only time we met. Friends were interviewing him on stage at a huge conference and they wanted me to meet him. I actually flew back from South Africa a month early to meet Studs. We only had 15-20 minutes before he went on stage. It wasn’t an interview or anything — just a conversation. It was April 2003 just before Studs turned 91. He was waiting to go on stage and the last thing he wanted to do was talk to another professor. We kind of just sat and then he said what do you do. When I told him that I just returned from South Africa he lit up — wanted to know everything, what’s going on the ground, what did I do there and more. When I interviewed people for the book I learned that this was Studs. If he was interested he was all there, if not, he was all not there.
I think the work of Studs Terkel is necessary in these times. We are living in a bizarre, divisive time, which would have made Terkel angry as hell. What do you think Terkel would be doing now if he were alive?
Like I said earlier, Terkel did not demonize people. That rule did not apply to politicians. He was a constant critic of the first Mayor Daley and was critical of many others: Nixon, Agnew, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, were all on the list. Like you I yearn to hear Studs now. But also it would be great if we could actually listen to the voices of the Trump voters, all of them. That’s what Studs did and the same is needed today.
… There are a couple of points that I think are important. Politically Studs was a third-party guy but at the same time not an ideologue. I think that like Chomsky, he would have held his breathe and voted for Hillary. More importantly for me though is the way he went about his life and work.
For Studs, he was never an interviewer, whether it was on his WFMT show or for his books. He was always having a conversation. He wanted to be amazed, but he also always amazed us. And lastly, it was the transformative story that Studs thought most important. The person he most often referred to was C.P. Ellis, who appears in a number of Studs books. C.P. went from being the head of the Durham, North Carolina KKK to being a union leader and civil rights worker — Studs got him to tell his story with thoughtful emotion – and we got a conversation about race, class and identity in our capitalist, racist, world.